How the Bodega Gets the Banana

How the Bodega Gets the Banana

Like most New York City bodegas, Brooklyn’s 6th Ave. Deli is a practical place.

The narrow aisles in the bodega — the Big Apple term of endearment for the independently run corner stores that trade in a little of everything — are stocked with a dizzying display of the humdrum goods that shop owners know will sell: batteries, king-sized Butterfingers, garbage bags, potato chips, Powerball tickets and, sitting on the floor by the sandwich counter, a 40-pound case of bananas.

Counterman Eddie Gvd, who is originally from Yemen, often runs the register dressed in a tidy white apron. He will sell each of these ubiquitous yellow fruits for between 20 and 35 cents, lowering the price the closer their color deepens to fully brown. Since 6th Ave. Deli usually pays $20 to $25 per case, around 100 pieces of fruit, those bananas bring in just pennies of profit.

Gvd may be able to double the store’s money on candy bars, but he treats bananas like a super-market’s milk and eggs — as a loss leader, an item priced at or near cost in order to bring in buyers for the $1 bottles of Poland Spring that cost the bodega just 17 cents.

Plus for Gvd, selling freckled loosies on the counter for a quarter is just the way the bodega banana business works. The fellow who delivers the bananas to Gvd and a handful of bodega owners pays maybe $16 to $17 per case to a wholesaler, who bought them for a dollar or two less, and so on down the chain. “At least six to seven make a living off it,” says Gvd. “Everybody makes money.”

Gvd’s math isn’t that far off, considering the three-week journey each banana makes to his store. It is a produce paradox that while bananas might seem like an all-American fruit—ubiquitous and inexpensive, they beat out apples, oranges, grapes and strawberries in per capita consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — they always come from somewhere else, like most New Yorkers.

It requires a host of middlemen — growers, exporters, cargo ship operators, importers, trucking companies, wholesale produce sellers and delivery drivers — to bring bananas up from the humid plantations that flourish in the equatorial zones of Central and South America. They travel by cargo ship, through the Panama Canal if they’re coming from parts of Columbia or Ecuador, then up the Atlantic Ocean to industrial harbors like the Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal in New Jersey, the largest commercial dock on the East Coast.

Then, after a stint in humble storage centers and ripening rooms hidden in the industrial edges of the Bronx, New Jersey or Long Island, the bananas take their final ride through the city. The majority of them will travel in an army of plain white box trucks with hand-stenciled names like D&J Tropical Produce or D&B Deli Man. They drive from store to store and double-park while their drivers hand over cases of quickly expiring fruit to bodega clerks like Gvd — beloved brands like Chiquita and Dole, but also bunches with lesser-known names and perhaps lower price tags, like El Manaba, Bonita, Bello, Royal Gold and a recent upstart called Selvatica.

Remarkably, no one throws a ticker tape parade to announce the arrival of these exotic fruits, and within 24 hours, most bananas change hands — sold for just three for a dollar, or 79 cents a pound — for the final time.


The first bodegas were small groceries opened by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, hence the use of the Spanish term bodega, which refers to a small grocery. Today, according to Jack Sagen of Jetro Cash & Carry, a food-service supply store that caters to bodegas, the owners are now primarily Dominican, Mexican and Arab. Recently, a dramatic increase in rents has led to a decrease in bodegas in upper Manhattan, according to the New York City-based Bodega Association of the United States, but for now, they still play a necessary role in many other city neighborhoods where other food options remain scarce. They are still widely considered one of the most iconic components of New York City life.


That the banana is a truly a modern agricultural marvel — remarkably affordable, fast-ripening, found in pristine condition for sale every day, everywhere, all year long — is a logistics miracle that has largely gone unnoticed by most New Yorkers.

Few are more aware of this complicated yet largely invisible process than Joe Palumbo. For the past four decades, Palumbo has been peddling produce, the first two delivering to markets and bodegas, the second running Top Banana, a wholesaler in the South Bronx that sells Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita and Bonita bananas, as well as Selvatica plantains and dozens of other fruits and vegetables. He bought the business from the Strik family in 1995: “I was a customer,” he says. “I used to tease them that I’d buy it…then one day they called me and said they were ready.”

Top Banana — whose motto is still “Strik-ly the best” and whose old-fashioned logo features a gorilla chasing after a banana that just lost its top hat — is a ripener, a required stop for every banana before it arrives at a bodega, fruit stand or grocery store. What Palumbo purchased from the Striks wasn’t their delivery routes, distribution network or a banana brand — the family didn’t own any of those — but their warren of refrigeration rooms.

Bananas we buy in the United States are nearly all a resilient monocropped cultivar called the Cavendish. Multinational corporations grow this sturdy species on large plantations in tropical places like Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia and Ecuador. Even so, to get the bananas from there to here before they turn to mush, they must be picked bright green, bitter and hard. They are refrigerated during transport via shipping containers on cargo ships and then ripened only once they hit New York.

Though many varieties of bananas are cultivated for sale around the world — and many would argue that most are even better tasting than the Cavendish — the American export market is literally built around the breed because it withstands travel and, more importantly, is resistant to a disease that decimated the tastier Gros Michel cultivar in the 1950s.

Monoculture — where just one kind of plant is cultivated — makes the crop more susceptible to disease, but it also means the farming process is extremely efficient: Plants are the same height at harvest and they mature at the same rate, so fruits are all the same size when they’re separated into bunches and put into a box.

Under a seemingly endless canopy of Cavendish leaves, rubber-booted workers harvest the bunches by hand with machetes, removing enormous hanging stalks that each typically hold hundreds of bananas growing in semi-circular groups of 10 to 20 fruits. Together, they look like upside-down umbrellas. (The banana is actually a flowering plant, and its trunk is technically a stem. Botanically speaking, the banana fruit itself is one big berry.)

Growers like to refer to the groups as “hands” — the word banana is from an old Arabic term meaning “finger” — which are split up by plantation workers into what Americans fondly call bunches. Bunches are washed, tucked into a branded plastic bag perforated with holes to let in air and placed into a 40-pound cardboard case.

Fifty-four cases of bananas are loaded onto a pallet. Twenty pallets are forklifted into a refrigerated shipping container, and then those 40,000 pounds of bananas join hundreds more containers — loaded both with more bananas and some other exported goods — on a docked cargo ship readying for its journey to non-banana-growing countries.

All told, it takes just 18 to 21 days for those bananas to go from plantation to bodega, says Palumbo, a Brooklyn native who bears a faint resemblance to a young Rodney Dangerfield and shares his penchant for comedic delivery. That and his banana expertise have landed him recurring appearances on the “Produce Pete” segments on WNBC Channel 4 Television in New York, where he has talked about how to properly open a banana or use the inside of a banana peel to shine shoes.


the banana's trip from farm to bodega

One Con of Monoculture

Some who monitor the banana industry, and the recent outbreaks of a new strain of disease known as Race 4, worry that the Cavendish will soon join the Gros Michel in the annals of commercial extinction. Monoculture makes the crop more susceptible to pests or pathogens, which can easily be delivered via soil or on the clothes of a visitor. One suggested solution lies in polycropping of many banana breeds, an exciting thought for those seeking diverse banana flavors.

banana ripening room - Food and City
banana pulp thermometer - Food and City
TOP: At Top Banana, a pulp thermometer measures the internal temperature of a box of bananas in one of the ripening rooms. ABOVE: In recent years, Top Banana built multi-story, high-tech, pressurized ripening rooms that allow for better ripening. The display shows room and fruit temperatures, ethylene and humidity levels.

an employee checks the i

An employee checks the inside of a banana for ripeness.


A century ago, says Palumbo, bananas were brought in on the stalk and stored in “banana cellars.” Refrigeration revolutionized the business, as did the invention of the pallet and forklift. Until about 30 years ago, most ripening systems were refrigerated rooms with fans to circulate air around the bananas.

“Bananas are like children,” says Palumbo. “They have to be put to bed, and they have to be woken up.”

Waking the banana has become more technologically advanced over time, though temperature still provides the basic alarm clock. Today’s newest systems — Top Banana built four in the past few years, in addition to maintaining 12 older models — feature computer-controlled, multi-story, pressurized ripening rooms with built-in airflow. Each room can hold two-and-a-half containers worth of bananas at a time.

Not only is the ripening process more consistent — and designed to ripen tens of thousands of bananas in about a week — it is now possible to remotely track humidity, delivery of ethylene gas and airflow through the boxes. Like the bags, the boxes are punctuated with holes to aid the process. The crew even knows the temperature of the fruits themselves, thanks to pulp thermometers that are plunged into the flesh. “I can even see it on my phone if I have to,” says Dan Imwalle, who has worked for Top Banana for eight years.

Even so, the skill and experience of a professional ripener like Imwalle is important, notes Palumbo. “No load is the same,” he says of the refrigerated shipping containers that arrive at his loading bays directly from the ports. Each shipment has bananas at different stages of ripening, and his employees can quickly determine how quickly they are ripening and what the sales forecasts are from day to day. They’ll sort the containers based on how quickly or slowly they need to get the bananas where they need to go.

“Each morning I spend 20 minutes touching, feeling, looking,” says Imwalle. He usually wears custom Top Banana RefrigiWear jackets to keep him warm inside the ripening rooms, which typically hover somewhere between 56 and 67 degrees, depending on the season.

Like most ripeners, Imwalle thinks about a banana in roughly seven stages, which are helpfully listed on a color-coded guide put out by each brand. Though the color for each stage differs slightly for each brand of banana — a fact that both amuses and frustrates Palumbo — the ripeners get them at one (very green) and sell them to markets or distributors somewhere between three and five (when they have some green, but also some yellow). American customers usually eat bananas between a four and a seven, when they are sweeter, have more nutrients and are just beginning to freckle.

In New York City — where Africans, Jamaicans, Indians and others eat off-the-boat green bananas, and banana bread takes care of the brown ones — it’s fair to say that every color is desired by someone. Groceries and big markets buy bananas on the greener side, because they know boxes will sit around their basements and bunches will sit around in their customers’ kitchens. Bodegas usually buy bananas on the turn from green to yellow, because their customers will eat them right away. The overall goal for a ripener or wholesaler? Not to have too many or too few of the colors at any given time.

Musa banana variety


One of two or three genera in the family Musaceae; it includes bananas and plantains. Around 70 species of Musa are known, with a broad variety of uses.

Beyond 4011

Most Americans typically eat only one type of musa — the botanical genus of bananas, including plantains. The commercially sold varieties are all hybridized, cultivated members — but around the world the fruit is cultivated and sold in many flavors and forms, some now centuries old. There is a chunky banana cultivar called Latundan that has a tart-apple flavor, and red-skinned bananas with pink flesh. For those lucky enough to live in banana-growing regions, you can also still find the original wild musa, some creamy and sweet, some largely inedible thanks to their tiny size and large seeds.


Palumbo has plenty of colleagues in the ripening business, many of them with more ripening rooms. They include EXP Group, a New Jersey company that imports Latin American produce including many bodega-bound bananas; J. Esposito & Sons, a 60-year-old company from Brooklyn whose third generation of owners just built new ripening rooms on Long Island; Yell-O-Gold, located just outside of Boston; and Banana Distributors of New York, just around the corner from Top Banana. Each ripener also gets its bananas from various ports in the Northeast. Many of Top Banana’s brands come through the port in Wilmington, Delaware, for example, while J. Esposito & Sons gets its bananas at one of the few working ports in Brooklyn, ripens them in Long Island, then trucks them back to the city.

What makes Top Banana unique is that it is the only ripener in Hunts Point Produce Market, the city’s 48-year-old, 113-acre cooperatively owned commercial distribution center in the South Bronx. Surrounded by yards of battered, barbed-wire-topped fencing, the produce market is like a city unto itself, albeit one that looks like an Eastern European post-war public housing project. Cars have to pay $5 to a security guard at a flank of tollbooths to enter, unless the driver has a pass. The complex consists of four long, low-slung, rectangular buildings that are essentially a series of refrigerators and truck bays. The market has its own private rail yard and, from the wee hours of the morning until midday seven days a week, a vast parking lot bustling with fast-moving tractor trailers.

The produce market, as well as smaller dedicated markets for seafood and meat, make up New York City’s 329-acre Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the beating heart of the city’s food system. The produce market’s website says it generates $2.4 billion annual in sales with 10,000 employees from 55 countries and 49 states. That’s why Banana Distributors of New York is just around the corner on Drake Street, along with companies like Arugula King, Mr. Hand Truck, Jetro Cash & Carry and also Big Farm Wholesale, which is one of many smaller produce resellers who will buy bananas from a ripener and re-sell them for maybe $14 a case, up or down a few dollars depending on how much quickly browning fruit they are sitting on.


Bananas are ranked in stages of ripeness from from 1 (very green) to 7 (with many brown spots). Distributors and bodegas buy them between 3 and 5 and most American consumers eat them between 4 and 7 when they are sweeter and have more nutrients.


On Our Loading Dock: Recommendations from Food+City

On Our Loading Dock: Recommendations from Food+City

 What brain-tickling books, podcasts, movies or YouTube channels are you enjoying right now? Tweet us @foodcityorg and we’ll include some of the responses in our next issue.


This 2014 documentary by Eric Greenberg Anjou looks at the cultural forces that made the Jewish deli what it was in its heyday and how the remaining 150 delicatessens in the U.S. are trying to keep a uniquely American tradition alive.

American Experience: Panama Canal

There’s no better way to comprehend the scale and importance of the construction of the Panama Canal than seeing some of the footage featured in this documentary. You can stream it for free online at

Milk Eggs Vodka

On, Bill Keaggy has been showing off his quirky collector’s habits since the early days of the Internet. Shoes shaped like rocks. Chairs that look sad. In the 2000s, he collected found grocery lists and turned them into a book that gives great insight into American buying (and note-taking) habits.

The Box

Think containers are boring? Let Marc Levinson persuade you otherwise. In his book, now in a second edition, he paints vivid scenes of the enormity, ubiquity, simplicity and technology of containerization. Through his eyes, it’s easy to see how the shipping container has shaped the world.


Clover founder (and MIT engineer) Ayr Muir has found a way to make fast food sustainable. This chain of restaurants and food trucks in the Boston area has more than a dozen locations, uses seasonal produce that is 30 to 60 percent organic and doesn’t have a single freezer. Their menu of sandwiches and sides is based on what’s available seasonally, but they can still serve customers in an average of three and a half minutes.


Two excellent podcasts that touch on food in very different ways. Gastropod from Cynthia Graber (pictured, left) and Nicola Twilley focuses on food through the lens of history and science. Roman Mars (right) ventures into packaging and transportation in his design and architecture podcast, 99 Percent Invisible.

The Container Guide

This wacky idea from Food+City contributor Craig Cannon and friend Tim Hwang — a waterproof field guide to shipping containers — started as a Kickstarter campaign that drew more than $20,000 in pre-orders. The book helps you track ships and their containers in ports across America so you can add them to your life list, just like birders.

Uncommon Carriers

John McPhee is known for going into the field to explain our world. Using his experience riding along with train engineers and barge pilots, he gives readers a close-up look at how these people move our stuff across the country.

Recipe: Tracking the Ingredients for Charlotte Russe in 1891

Recipe: Tracking the Ingredients for Charlotte Russe in 1891

Fifty years after Austin was founded, a group of women at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church gathered recipes from the women in the community and published the city’s first cookbook.

The Austin History Center has one of three known copies of “Our Home Cookbook,” published in 1891. Editors Medora Thornton and Lucy Lanier Davis gathered more than 300 recipes from 87 women in the capital city. In 2015, the Austin History Center republished a facsimile copy called Austin’s First Cookbook, with accompanying historical essays about the original book, the women who owned it and the women who contributed the recipes. We asked Mike Miller, who led the research effort behind the book, to help us dissect one of the recipes for Charlotte Russe to learn more about how food moved in Texas in the 1890s.

Charlotte Russe

This is one of six Charlotte Russe recipes in the book. Who was Charlotte Russe? Common lore has it that French chef Marie-Antione Carême (1784–1833) created the dish, named after Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of George IV. The word “russe” is French for “Russian,” and though Carême came to know the popular princess while working for King George, she died in childbirth while he was working for the Russian Czar Alexander I, and he created this dish in her honor. Most recipes include the molded ladyfingers and custard or Bavarian Cream, such as this recipe, but a simpler version of sponge cake, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry is sometimes also called a Charlotte Russe.

Sponge cake

Egg-heavy cakes were ubiquitous in this era. There are nine sponge cake recipes in this cookbook, including two different handwritten versions from the owner of the book. “Sponge” has long referred to the appearance of a cake lightened with whisked egg whites instead of yeast, and the batter is sometimes baked into elongated cakes called ladyfingers. Many claim sponges as a foundation of French cuisine, but Gervase Markham refers to sponge cake in her 1618 cookbook, The English Huswife, Containing the inward and outward Vertues Which ought to be in a Complete Woman.

Mrs. Littlefield

Alice Tiller Littlefield was the wife of George Littlefield, a Confederate officer who went on to become a banker. After the war, the Littlefields were one of the richest families in Austin, and although Alice Littlefield submitted 13 recipes to the book, including this one and another for Charlotte Russe, she didn’t do much cooking. According to her letters, she hired many cooks and didn’t keep them long. These recipes were likely theirs, though we don’t know the cooks’ names or backgrounds.

Farina kettle

Double boilers such as the farina kettle were used to heat milk, cream or other liquids without scorching them. “Farina” refers to the cereal grains that cooked so well using this utensil. This patent is from 1897, several years after the publication of this recipe, but farina kettles and other kitchen gadgets gained popularity after the industrial manufacturing boom that followed the Civil War. Then, railroads could move freely from north to south, and capital was again available for manufacturing.


The Texas sugar industry took off after the first refinery opened near Houston in 1879 on a plantation that had been growing sugarcane since 1843, according to food writer M.M. Pack. Eventually, that company became Imperial Sugar Company, which built a town called Sugar Land so its employees could have housing, schools and even retail outlets and medical care.

Cox’s gelatine

Cox was one of three well-known gelatin brands at the time. Before production was standardized, women had to make their own gelatin from animal bones, mostly horse and sometimes cattle. Gelatin from the New York-based Cox Gelatine Company [sic] was originally made in Scotland. The arrival of the railroad in Austin in 1871, and refrigerated rail cars about ten years later, made it much easier for Austinites to expand their ingredients list beyond what could be produced locally.

Food Movers: The Pallet Puzzle

Food Movers: The Pallet Puzzle

One hundred years ago, on any dock, you could find longshoremen with sore muscles and calloused hands. Many of them would have spent days unloading each parcel by hand from the hull of a ship. Think “On the Waterfront,” but in color.

With the introduction of the pallet in the early 20th century, and with its wider use after World War II, what would have taken hours or even days with break bulk shipping — where each item is individually unloaded by hand — took a fraction of the time, allowing more goods to be moved more efficiently.

Pallets are platforms, moveable beds of sorts, for just about anything you’d want to ship. Key to their design is the ability of a forklift to pick up the pallet and whatever is sleeping on top of it and put it onto a train, truck, ship or airplane, or move it around a warehouse.

Today, more than 450 million pallets are manufactured each year. In the United States, 2 billion pallets pulse through the channels of the national supply chain — just like platelets through the human bloodstream — carrying vital cargo, often with little recognition of the role they play globally.

Pallets are so integral to the supply chain that they are subject to scrutiny in labs such as one at Virginia Tech, where researchers use stress machines and extreme conditions to test durability.

John Clarke spent 11 years at the Pallet Lab and now serves on its advisory board. He is also technical director at Nelson Company — a manufacturer and supplier of pallets. When it comes to materials, Clarke explains that while some industries favor plastic, steel or cardboard pallets, wooden pallets still dominate.

Ninety to 95 percent of U.S. pallets are made of wood, but even though wood offers affordability and reliability, the porous material risks bringing more than just cargo to its destination. Mold, bacteria and pests can quickly contaminate an already perilous food supply chain. To protect cargo, wood pallets must be sterilized by being heated to 133 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There aren’t many things as old as the pallet that are still made out of the same material as they were originally,” Clarke remarks. “That’s because wood is a very balanced material.” It’s stiff yet strong, cheap yet durable.

Although the 48-by-40-inch pallet is known as the “grocery pallet” for its common use in the food industry and beyond, there is no universal pallet size. Even grocery pallet dimensions are standardized only in the United States. Of the billions of pallets used in the world, there are thousands of sizes, materials and designs.

Some companies don’t own pallets at all. They rent them, creating “pools” of pallets. PECO and CHEP are two major pallet rental companies that appeared on the U.S. shipping logistics scene in the 1990s. As retail chains like Walmart and Costco gained more clout, they began mandating that products from manufacturers arrive on pallets instead of by clamp truck or in smaller loads. PECO and CHEP offered rental pallet services that would save manufacturers that had never used pallets the expense of buying, repairing and retrieving their own pallets.

Although it makes sense for some companies to own their own pallets and use them multiple times, Clarke says that many pallets are never returned to their owners. “You might have a custom pallet, but because of the weight and fuel costs, it’s just not economical to have it returned for ten dollars when you could replace it for five.”

As soon as a company finds a pallet strategy that works, changes in fuel or lumber costs can force another shift in the pallet puzzle.

In high-volume supply chains, all of this fuss over design, calculation and recalculation at the margin matters — especially for time-sensitive, perishable commodities like food. In 2010, Costco decided it would only accept block pallets, with forklift openings on all four sides instead of only two, in the case of skids. This eliminated the need to rotate the pallets if the side without openings was facing the forklift. If Costco unloads millions of pallets a year and saves just two seconds per pallet not having to rotate it, they will have saved hundreds of hours per year.

Pallets remain useful even after their days in the transportation system end. They might pile up outside a grocery store or end up at a special recycling or mulch grinding facility. Thanks to Pinterest, they might get upcycled into a photo frame or coffee table. Useful again, but this time, in full view.

Stringer pallets (above) have two opening points for the forks of a forklift, while a block pallet (top) has four, one for each side. While stringer pallets are less expensive, a block pallet saves time because a forklift or pallet jack doesn’t have to rotate the pallet in order to lift it. Click each image to enlarge.

Lexicon Icon


another name for a hand-driven forklift that moves pallets; not unlike a dolly.

Food Movers: Chasing Maine Lobsters

Food Movers: Chasing Maine Lobsters

It is 4:30 this morning, not a streak of light on the horizon in the eastern sky as the first full-throated growls of marine diesels come to life and begin their ghostly procession out into the inky pre-dawn blackness. Their halogen lights cast an eerie loom over their shimmering wakes.

After a long winter, the waters off the Maine coast have warmed to the point that lobsters have begun to crawl toward shore seeking protective shelters. There, they split their shells apart and struggle out of their protective armor, growing to a larger size in the process. Once their new shells have hardened within a few weeks, they are ravenously hungry. Millions of them scavenge along the bottoms of Maine’s intricate geography of bays, reaches, coves and creeks, waving their antennae to pick up scents that lead them to food, which lobstermen are only too happy to provide.

In 2014, Maine lobstermen harvested more than 124 million pounds of lobster worth close to half a billion dollars from Maine’s 5,000 miles of saltwater coastline. It takes the hands of thousands of workers on ships and shores to keep that supply chain moving.

Aboard the lobster boats departing the harbor, a lobsterman’s helper, called a sternman, is busy spearing salted herring from bait totes and stuffing this reeking repast into knitted bait bags. The captain rounds up, heads into the tide and comes alongside the first of the 200 to 300 lobster buoys he will visit today, all painted with his special colors. The captain gaffs the line with a boat hook and takes a wrap or two around the shivs of his hydraulic hauler, which catches the line and spins it into a pile at his feet.

Once the trap comes up over the rail, the sternman takes over. He or she — and there are many sternwomen and an increasing number of female captains — opens the top of the trap and pulls out lobsters and sundry other marine creatures that have crawled or wriggled into the wire enclosure looking for a free meal. The other creatures will go back overboard along with juvenile lobsters that have not reached the minimum or maximum size range that lobstermen are allowed to harvest. The sternman also checks for any eggs carried on a female lobster tail. Egg-bearing females, too, go back into the deep to release their eggs into swirling currents to keep the cycle of life — and Maine’s prodigious lobster economy — going.

Once back at the dock, the day’s catch is swung onto scales and sorted into crates, soon to be loaded into trucks en route to tens of thousands of restaurants, cruise ships and lobster shacks. Clearly, one of America’s few successfully managed fisheries is providing benefits to fishermen and foodies alike.

Food Movers: Paper or Plastic?

Food Movers: Paper or Plastic?

There was a time in our country’s history when farm-to-table wasn’t a trend, it was a necessity — especially when it came to dairy consumption.

If a family wanted milk, that milk came straight from the family’s cow and had to be consumed or turned into butter or cheese on milking day. Otherwise, it would spoil.

As farms and cities got bigger and fewer people kept their own cows, delivering fresh dairy became the milkman’s job. But the new process was far from perfect: Hand-delivered bottles were heavy and needed to be returned and sterilized, and without refrigeration, milk would still go bad within a day. Another problem: Glass jugs break.

Legend holds that the inventor of the paper milk carton we know today dropped a glass jug one morning, sending milk and glass everywhere. In his frustration, John Van Wormer patented a paper milk carton that could be shipped flat and assembled as needed at the dairy. (Until this point, dairies used G.W. Maxwell’s earlier paper milk carton, which did not fold flat.)

Van Wormer’s early Pure-Pak milk cartons, patented in 1915, were made of paperboard and sealed with wax, which prevented the milk from saturating the paperboard. The gable-top closure helped maintain freshness during transport while eliminating the need for a cap. And unlike glass bottles, milk cartons were lightweight and disposable: They could travel farther and didn’t need to come back.


Although G.W. Maxwell gets credit for creating the gable-topped milk carton, toy factory owner John Van Wormer invented a carton that could fold flat, a revolutionary efficiency in the milk chain.

Patent drawing for milk container that could fold flat, invented by John R. Van Wormer.

While people had a hard time letting go of their beloved glass bottles, the coated carton slowly gained popularity, and as that transition began taking hold, so did refrigeration. By the late 1940s, electric refrigerators were in most American homes, small family-owned dairies were consolidating and the milkman was securing his Rockwellian role in the lives of American families and neighborhoods that soon became nostalgia.

While neither was necessarily dependent on the other, the milk carton, owes some of its success to advances in cold chain technology — a series of refrigerated tanks, trucks (“reefers”) — and storage units that ensure dairy and other perishables like meat and produce make it from the farm to the grocery store without spoiling.

Today, the value of cold chain markets that support perishable food distribution globally is estimated at around $250 billion. And while many countries lag in their cold chain facility development, the United States annually moves some three billion gallons of chilled milk through a cold chain so efficient that customers can buy refrigerated milk at nearly every gas station and corner store in the country.

As other countries expand their own cold chains, the U.S. cold chain industry stands to profit from rapid growth. According to the Global Cold Chain Alliance, refrigerated warehouse capacity around the world increased by 20 percent from 2012 to 2014, and three of the top five refrigerated warehouse operators are U.S. companies. But most of that milk is no longer being moved in Van Wormer’s carton: The milk carton may have solved the problem of breaking glass, but plastic jugs have overcome some shortcomings of cartons: They are less likely to leak and easier to re-seal.

According to Glen Harrington, director of manufacturing for the Borden Dairy Company, milk manufacturers were beginning to make their own gallon and half-gallon plastic jugs by the 1970s. When produced on a large scale, Harrington says, it’s more cost effective for dairy companies to make cartons in-house than it is to buy them.

Paperboard milk and cream cartons are still in use, but these days, they’re lined with polyethylene, a plastic used for food-safe packaging. In many countries outside the U.S., milk is sold unrefrigerated in shelf-stable cartons, like the ones used stateside for soups and broths. The milk is usually pasteurized at a higher temperature to extend shelf life. The downsides to this type of shelf-stable milk, according to Harrington, are that it typically costs more and doesn’t taste as good.

“We’ve got a good system,” says Harrington. “Why would we spend more to make it taste worse if we could just move it around fresh?”


The design of plastic milk bottles evolved quickly in the mid-1960s, when the handled jug as we now know it was invented. The design not only saved dairies money, it encouraged customers to buy a gallon of milk at a time, a large amount compared to the smaller quantities sold outside the U.S.